Backyard Hugelkultur Redux

Sarah has developed a new Hugelkultur initiative in the backyard. (I previously wrote about backyard Hugelkultur way back in June 2008.)

What, you ask, is Hugelkultur?  Think of it as very slow composting.

Hugelkulture is the practice of composting large woody material to create a raised garden bed. It is a way of dealing with excess amounts of woody garden wastes, for example prunings, hedge clippings, brassica stems, or brashwood.

The name comes from German – hügelkultur translates as “hill culture”.

The technique involves digging a circular trench about 1′ (30 cm) deep and 5′ (1.5 m) wide, in the centre of which is dug another hole 1′ (30 cm) deep hole. The material is piled in. Turf (grass) is then stacked face down on top, then layers of compost, well rotted leaves and manure, etc as available. The layers break down slowly and creating rich humus over four or five years. It is claimed that this is ideal for growing hungry crops such as zucchinis (courgettes) or strawberries.

As the years pass, the deep soil of the raised bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets – so your hugelkultur becomes self tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm the soil giving a slightly longer growing season, in temperate and cold climates.

We dug out what looked like a large grave which soon filled with water.  For a week or so the girls would say things like “can we go play in the grave?” to creepy effect.  (In fact, the presence of this inexplicable gravesite in the backyard, slowly filling with water, created a very Rear Window effect.) Then, after it seemed to be starting to breed insects, not to mention becoming a likely death trap for skunks or other smaller mammals, Sarah filled it with sticks and branches and we all went out to jump on the branches and break them as much as possible and drive them down into the ground; and then we loaded the dirt back on top.  Sarah claims it will somehow all be fertile compost in a year or two.

I swear to god we don’t have a pesky former neighbor buried under all that…

*Cedar Rapids,* Eliot Coleman, and the Midwestern greenhouse dream


We watched the El Helms movie Cedar Rapids: Ed Helms is Tim Lippe, a modest, upstanding, nerdy small-town Iowa insurance salesman who is sent to a conference in the glittering fleshpots of Cedar Rapids, IA, which functions (often wittily) in the movie as a very tame/toned-down version of Las Vegas in The Hangover.  “Sometimes a girl just needs to go somewhere where she can be someone else,” a character comments; what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids.  It’s not bad… Helms and his roommate, similarly modest/upstanding/pious salesman Isiah Whitlock Jr., are both very amusing in their shocked disapproval of the wild goings-on (swearing, drinking shots, swimming in the hotel pool after hours) at the conference, embodied in their other crass roommate played by a good John C. Reilly.  There’s a funny running meta-joke about Isiah Whitlock’s nerdy (African-American) character, who is “a fan of the HBO series The Wire” and at one point puts on his best ghetto Omar imitation for purposes of intimidation; Whitlock played corrupt State Senator Clay Davis in The Wire.

Ultimately I’d categorize this as one of those movies that if you stumbled upon, you’d be pleasantly surprised; not exactly a must-see, though.  Sadly these days that probably makes it one of only a small handful of decent recent Hollywood comedies?  Sarah made a good point that the movie would make more sense if the characters were teenagers, and that it’s probably (a la Hot Tub Time Machine) intended for 40-somethings with fond memories of 1980s teen movies; I immediately could see the whole thing taking place at a senior class trip or some such.

Anyway… we were both amused when the Anne Heche character asks Helms to tell her about his dreams and fantasies, and he starts explaining his desire to build a small backyard season-extending greenhouse.  “A greenhouse?  Come on…” she says, meaning, “I want to hear about major life fantasies, not little DIY backyard projects,” but Helms says, “no, really, it can be quite affordable if you build it yourself.”

This was funny to us and hit a bit close to home because Sarah has been obsessed with this very possibility even since our friend Judith offered us her quite-awesome built-in greenhouse which she does not use.  Of course, the question is whether it would be remotely practical to move the fragile, glass-filled thing the 7 blocks to our yard, but Sarah has been scheming about it and dreaming of December fresh lettuce and greens.

I’m reading & enjoying that Melissa Coleman memoir about her upbringing on her father Eliot Coleman’s famous Maine organic Four Seasons Farm (which we visited last month; Sarah even managed to schmooze with Coleman himself a bit), THIS LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone… Elliot Coleman was an innovator in popularizing organic farming techniques that allow for vegetables throughout the winter– greenhouses and root cellars playing a key role.  Sarah would also like a root cellar of course.

In a way, that a character in this kind of Hollywood comedy would be dreaming about a backyard greenhouse can be understood as a sign of how far the influence of Eliot Coleman and his ilk has spread in the U.S., far beyond the counterculture.  Next all Tim Lippe needs are some chickens.

I Built 1% of this Wall

I spent last week reading, among other things, George Eliot on the sanctity of skilled manual labor (Adam Bede) while Sarah constructed a stone wall in our front yard.  It was pretty funny.  In the evenings we’d both be saying “Whoo!  Long day!  I’m tired!” but I was tired from sitting in the library/cafe turning pages slowly, reading about Adam and Seth building cabinets and coffins, Sarah from heaving big slabs of limestone, chipping at it with hammers, rearranging the dirt and gravel, etc.

This wall has actually been a going concern for two years.  Sarah’s been working on it off and on with our friend Jack and a few other colleague/sidekicks of Jack’s.  It’s sat unfinished for the last year and now Sarah’s been making a push to complete it.  (Aha!  I realize that I wrote about this project, then the “New Wall Project,” back in the Fall of 2008.)

This is a “dry-laid” wall, meaning that it’s made without mortar, simply by fitting the pieces of limestone together neatly.  Sarah and Jack bought four tons of limestone in the end, 1/2 ton at a time in a truckload.  It costs $80 per ton (pretty good deal, $320 for all of this stone).  The pieces were cut by saws with smooth edges, so they needed to be “split-faced” — chipped away with a carving tool — to make them look more natural.

Yesterday I laid aside the Victorian fiction for the morning to help Sarah with some of the stone-lifting, digging, and root-cutting.  It’s good exercise, my arms were tired afterward.  She thinks that strenuous digging is the perfect exercise for psychological health, I think partly for evolutionary-biology-related reasons, and that instead of aerobics or step classes at the gym, people should just spend an hour digging dirt.  Probably true.

I asked her if she thought it was a fair estimate to say that I contributed 1% of the labor on the wall.  She didn’t really dignify that with a response, but I think it’s about right.

We were joking that passersby would say, “wait, who’s that pale man in the huge sun hat?  That’s not Jack!!  Wait — is that woman married??”

Hey — we all have different skill sets and interests…

Willy Streeter Community Garden

Sarah took the plunge and joined in on a community garden plot.  Or rather, 4 plots, I believe, as part of a team of five people.  Here she is planting some onions.

It’s great — the Willy Streeter Community Garden, a former pig-farm (apparently) a little more than a half mile from our house, very convenient, right near the Y and a playground.  Should be a good spring-summer family activity.  For various reasons the home garden thing hadn’t been working as well as we hoped for vegetables, there were some light/shade issues.  But now that we’ve started, it seems to make so much sense to do it more communally.  Everything’s nicely set up at the community space, with the land tilled, manure available, and a hose right there.  Our friend Leah is an artist whose work involves plants, gardens and seeds — I’ve seen her described as an enviro-sculptor — and one perk of having her part of the group is that she has a big backlog of nice organic seeds.  When I was there helping out a bit on Sunday, we were planting onions and leeks and parsley.

A decade ago we lived in Hyde Park, Chicago for two years and we have friends who’ve been heavily involved in the community garden there.  We enjoyed a lot of pesto from basil planted in that garden — Anthony and Kirsten used to bring home big laundry baskets of it and have basil-making parties.  Unfortunately, the garden is being razed by U. Chicago — a sad story [this is the Chicago Reader article about it].

How to Make a Fruit-fly Trap

Take a glass and put some fruit-fly bait in the bottom.  A piece of tomato or banana works well.

Cover the top with saran wrap and poke some decent-sized small holes in the top [just realized my holes have been too big — they should be tiny, made with a pencil tip or some such].  Use a rubber band to affix.

Put the trap on your counter and let the hunt begin.  Every morning and sometimes every few hours subsequently I have to cover it with my hand and bring it outside to release the catch.  (I feel kind of silly letting them go free, but it’s too much trouble to kill them).  I find it kind of fascinating that the cup is often hot from the methane emitted by the rotting banana.

It’s gotten hot and sultry, and too many fruitflies buzzing around makes me feel like I’m in Baby Doll.

Photo 419

Drain Pipe Ditches

When we came home after over a month away we found a very damp basement.  No actual puddles or leaks but a kind of miasmic moldy atmosphere and, we discovered, some actual mold in some cabinets.

We went out and bought a new energy-efficient dehumidifier (we had one that looks like it dated from the 1980s).  But Sarah also suspected that we had a gutter-drainage issue and when she dug down to look, it turned out that someone had once tried to repair a broken drainage pipe with a plastic shopping bag.  So, we dug a whole new drainage ditch after going to Lowes and getting what we needed (the piping, etc).  Of course I would never be able to do this competently but Sarah was able to chat with the Lowes guys and figure it out.

So we spent yesterday afternoon and some of today’s digging the ditch and cutting tree roots with a pole-axe thing that Sarah was calling an adze.  Especially today in 90 degree heat this was really hard work and good exercise.

I developed a blister on my hand so at the Los Campesinos! show I couldn’t clap very enthusiastically.

When I badgered her for a figure, Sarah claimed that we may have saved about $900 by doing this ourselves.  I don’t know if this is true but I like the idea.

Let it rain!

Seed Sharing Gone Bad

From our local paper today (not sure what accounts for the several-week delay on this news being reported; perhaps there was an attempted hush-up):

A spring party intended to be an opportunity for friends to exchange seeds landed one woman in the hospital after she ate some of the seeds.

Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies were called at 12:10 a.m. March 22 to the 9300 block of East Woodview Drive. The 30-year-old homeowner told police she was hosting a spring solstice party where about 15 people got together to exchange seeds for planting in their gardens. The hostess said numerous types of seeds were in a party-style bag which each guest received.

As the partygoers socialized, someone noticed the 34-year-old victim take a handful of seeds out of her bag and swallow them. Police said others began telling the woman that it wasn’t a good idea to do that since some seeds are toxic. Other partygoers were able to learn that the woman had swallowed purple moonflower seeds. After a few minutes, the woman became intoxicated and began to fall unconscious.

When the deputy arrived, she found the victim was lying on the bathroom floor. According to the report, the woman appeared extremely intoxicated, was incoherent and appeared to be having hallucinations.

The best part:

Police said the woman kept picking at things on her shirt, the deputy’s clothing and out of the air that were not there. She was taken to Bloomington Hospital where she was treated and released.

According to the report, purple moonflower seeds are very toxic and can lead to coma or death.

This is hilarious b/c Sarah has actually been involved in some seed-sharing parties… Little did I suspect what kinds of danger and bad behavior can be involved in such illicit gatherings.  That “party-style bag” should’ve been a tip-off.

Recycling the World of Interiors


Sarah was coveting Matt and Miranda’s subscription to The World of Interiors.  This is a high-end, expensive (at least $100 for the year’s subscription) British design/decoration/architecture magazine.  The photography is beautiful and they somehow seem to avoid the typical design-porn cliches — it’s not just a sequence of rich person after rich person’s predictable homes.

Some articles:

His studio a fisherman’s carrelet on a jetty by the Aquitaine coast, artist Richard Texier draws inspiration from the ceaseless roll of the ocean. Catherine de Montalembert reports

The Spanish legation once used mirrors to signal the mainland from this Tangerine dream house now owned by a bohemian design duo. Marie-France Boyer enters their prism

Combining architectural salvage with subtle erotic details – from carnal curtain rails to titillating toile – Sam Roddick’s Hampstead home sins with originality

Sixteen scruffy sketchbooks filled with keenly observed watercolours of Indian life shed light on a widowed Edwardian adventurer – and the colonial mindset, say Annabel Freyberg

The magazine seems to take its name seriously in that it really does focus on “interiors,” rather broadly understood, including quirky spaces like the artist’s houseboat-studio.  Not really my thing, but I can appreciate it to a degree.  Anyway, the reason I’m blogging about it is Sarah’s innovatively thrifty means of consuming it.  Miranda mailed her the entire 2008 run, all twelve issues.  She allowed herself to read January and put the rest of the top of a high shelf.  On Feb. 1 she took down February 2008.  So, barring weakness of will, she’ll go through the year like that.  Pretty clever, although these magazines are heavy so it was probably somewhat expensive for Miranda to mail them (but hey, that was on her dime — just kidding, Miranda, we appreciate it).

Of course, Sarah’s design schemes for our house will be a year out of date, but I suspect that for us that would be a big step up.

New Wall Project

Sarah is working on a major project — rebuilding the wall adjoining our front driveway. It looked very picturesque, covered with ivy, but sagging & bulging all over.  When we pulled the ivy off we realized that it was in mid-collapse.  This is a classic D.I.Y./ My Wife Does it Herself project in that I have had very little to do with it.  Depending on her mood, Sarah is resigned or mildly irritated about this.  I did carry some heavy stones on several occasions, I’ll say in my defense.

Sarah did a lot of research on the mechanics and hydraulics, etc., of supporting walls in preparation, but she is not truly doing it herself — she now has Jack and his assistant Hunter on the project, but she has so far worked side by side with them the entire time.  They spent all day Wednesday on it and one other afternoon.  Sarah pressed them to set a dollar amount on the value of her labor.  “Admit it, would I be the $10 per hour guy?” she asked and they assured her, “no, no, you’d be the $12/hour guy.”  She felt OK about that — still on the bottom of the pay scale, but respectable.

The one thing Sarah is regretting so far is that she realized too late that they had probably already destroyed the chipmunk home.  We have this chipmunk Chippy who is hanging out in the driveway 75% of the time and had some kind of lair in the rock wall which has now obviously been obliterated.  But we are hoping that he’ll have time this Fall to figure out some new arrangement.